Monday, March 22, 2010

Falling Apart

Don DeLillo is a New Yorker who has written renowned novels about such topics as the atomic age, and the Kennedy assassination, so it was not surprising that he should take on the huge burden of writing a novel about 9/11. The question is, whether it is too soon to translate the happenings of that day to a work of fiction?

In “Falling Man”, written in 2007, DeLillo focuses on the life of one man who made his way down the dark, crowded stairwell of the North Tower, on 9/11, with other dazed and terrified survivors to emerge on a street covered with ash, rubble, mud and falling debris. Keith Neudecker is an attorney estranged from his wife, Lianne, a freelance editor. On that day Keith walked aimlessly and was finally given a lift in an old panel truck. He told the driver to take him to his wife’s apartment. His wife decided to take him back, to be a family again, when everything around them was falling apart.

Keith lost a lot on that day, but instead of healing, he loses touch with reality. He goes to Las Vegas and loses himself in the numbness of on-going poker tournaments giving little thought to his wife and child, a child who scans the skies with binoculars looking for planes and worrying about Bill Lawton (a child’s phonetic approximation for Osama Bin Laden).

DeLillo’s story is divided into three parts. At the end of each part, DeLillo, or the narrator, goes into the mind of one of the 9/11 hijackers. The narrator, Hammad, speaks in a compelling way, giving the reader an insight into what may have been his “religious” purpose. DeLillo does not portray Hammad as a villain but lets the reader make that decision.

The “falling man” of this novel is a performance artist who Lianne encounters one day. The falling man has been appearing around the city, falling from high places, fully dressed in a business suit, with a briefcase in hand, only to be caught by a harness and suspended in midair.

I was left with the feeling that this story attempted too much and achieved too little. The falling man, mirroring the people who jumped from the towers, is bizarre and unsettling, and Keith Neudecker is a self absorbed man who survived a horror but can’t make sense of his life.

Don DeLillo is a wonderful writer who wants to show us the overall state of “numbness” that people fall into, a numbness that can totally take over a life. He has taken on a huge feat with this novel, bringing in many different characters and points of view. It is questionable whether he has achieved what he set out to do. But this novel is definitely worth reading, so that you can make that decision for yourself.

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